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November 13th, 2008:

Brown Clouds Over Asia Pose New Threat To Planet: UN

CBC News | Thursday, November 13, 2008

A polluted Hong Kong island skyline is seen in September 2008. High to very high pollution levels were recorded in various districts in the territory at the time.

A polluted Hong Kong island skyline is seen in September 2008. High to very high pollution levels were recorded in various districts in the territory at the time. (Bobby Yip/Reuters)

A brown haze of soot, particles and chemicals that hangs over parts of Asia is darkening cities, melting glaciers in the Himalayas and making weather systems more extreme, the United Nations said Thursday.

Scientists who have studied the thick brown clouds, which they estimate to be more than three kilometres thick, said the haze stretches from the Arabian Peninsula to China and the Western Pacific Ocean. It is officially known as atmospheric brown clouds.

The scientists, who come from China, India, Europe and the U.S., said in a new report commissioned by the UN Environment Program that the brown clouds are aggravating the impact of climate change caused by greenhouse gases in some regions.

They said they are issuing the warning now about the brown haze because it is a “serious and significant” environmental challenge facing the planet that poses a threat to human health and food production.

“Imagine for a moment a three-kilometer-thick band of soot, particles, a cocktail of chemicals that stretches from the Arabic Peninsula to Asia,” Achim Steiner, UN undersecretary general and executive director of the program, said during a news conference on the findings.

“All of this points to an even greater and urgent need to look at emissions across the planet, because this is where the stories are linked in terms of greenhouse emissions and particle emissions and the impact that they’re having on our global climate,” he said.

The brown clouds have darkened 13 cities in Asia, including Beijing, Shanghai, Bangkok, Cairo, Mumbai, New Delhi and Tehran, “dimming” sunlight in some places by as much as 25 per cent.

The brown clouds, produced by the burning of fossil fuels, wood and plants, form particles like black carbon and soot that absorb sunlight and warm the air, enhancing the greenhouse effect.

Mask for warming impact

Scientists, however, said the brown clouds also “mask” the warming impacts of climate change by an average of 40 per cent because they contain particles that reflect sunlight and cool the earth’s surface.

According to the report, the phenomenon has been studied closely in Asia, but it is not unique to the region, with brown clouds seen over parts of North America, Europe, southern Africa and the Amazon Basin.

The scientists said the brown clouds are having a negative impact on air quality and agricultural production in Asia with risks to human health increasing. Health problems associated with the brown clouds include cardiovascular and respiratory diseases.

Veerabhadran Ramanathan, head of the scientific panel that is carrying out the research and a professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California in San Diego, said the huge cloud masses can cross continents in the space of three to four days.

It’s not a regional issue, but a global one, he said.

“The main message is that it’s a global problem. This is not a problem where we point fingers at our neighbours. Everyone is in someone else’s backyard,” Ramanathan said.

He said one of most serious problems noted in the report is melting of the Hindu Kush-Himalaya-Tibetan glaciers, which provide the head-waters for the major river systems including the Ganges, Brahmaputra, Mekong and Yangtze rivers.

The Ganges basin, for example, is home to more than 400 million people and holds 40 per cent of India’s irrigated croplands.

He said the melting has “serious implications for the water and food security of Asia.”

The Chinese Academy of Sciences estimates that the glaciers have shrunk five per cent since the 1950s and the volume of China’s nearly 47,000 glaciers has fallen by 3,000 square kilometres over the past quarter century.

The brown clouds also have helped decrease the monsoon season in India. The weather extremes caused by the clouds may have also helped to reduce production of crops such as rice, wheat and soybean, according to the report.

Ramanathan said he hopes the report “triggers” an international response to the problems of greenhouse gases and brown clouds and the “unsustainable development” that underlies them both.

“The new research, by identifying some of the causal factors, offers hope for taking actions to slow down this disturbing phenomenon,” he said.

CitySeen: Still Trying To Clear The Air, 11 Years On

Andrew Sun, SCMP – Nov 13, 2008

Under a clear night sky, the Clear the Air group celebrated its 11th anniversary at the Fringe rooftop on Tuesday, at the same time kicking off a campaign to convince more companies to sign up for the corporate clean-air effort and commit to reducing their carbon footprint.scm_news_clear_the_air

“There are different categories,” Lisa Christensen, the fund-raising and events chairwoman (pictured with ambassadors Jocelyn Luko and Anthony Sandstrom) explained. “Through their involvement, we’ve created a plan for companies that sign up to take action. We’ll offer them a free consultation to start to improve their air quality. That’s the first step. It’s scaled for all levels of corporations, from [small and medium-sized enterprises] to large factories. At one major sportswear manufacturer, we did a four-week consultation and [helped it improve] energy savings by 20 per cent.”

Given how the industry has tanked in the past two months, you would think any sort of socially conscious campaign would get doors slammed in its face as businesses hope to ride out the economic storm. “Surprisingly, not,” Christensen said.

“I’ve been through bird flu and Sars, and traditionally green promotion was the first thing to go, but the reception to our cause has been very good. But we have had no luck with banks.”

Contact Clear the Air at 2886 2655.

Additional reporting by Clara Mak and Vivian Chen. Send tips, tickets and invitations to

Low-emission Zone Plan Closer As Pilot Study Nears end

Cheung Chi-fai, SCMP – Nov 13, 2008

A pilot study on low-emission zones where polluting franchised buses are banned will finish next year, acting Secretary for the Environment Kitty Poon Kit told legislators yesterday.

Replying to Democrats lawmaker Kam Nai-wai’s queries on the scheme, Dr Poon said the government would wait until the study was completed to determine a timetable to implement it.

The pilot scheme will target buses first since they accounted for up to a third of traffic in busy areas such as Mong Kok, Causeway Bay and Central and their emissions were relatively high, according to Dr Poon.

“We have to look at a basket of factors including how it might impact on the traffic flow as well as roadside air quality.”

Vehicle emission standards would also be studied, she said. All new vehicles must met Euro IV emission standards. Vehicles that do not meet the standard might be banned from the low-emission zones.

Dr Poon said there were similar schemes in London, Toyko, Shanghai and Berlin and they varied in terms of the implementation period, types of vehicles affected, and enforcement.

But the legislators were unconvinced and criticised the government for failing to seriously and urgently address air pollution.

Some said the government was delaying through lengthy study. Others were unhappy the government had refused to pursue a more direct solution like replacing older buses.

“The air pollution can’t be more serious but the government always says it is studying it,” Mr Kam said. “So why did the government not use the $3.2 billion diesel vehicle replacement grant to phase out dirty buses and set a deadline for such a switch? Otherwise, we won’t solve the problems in 20 years,” he added. He was referring to the one-off grant to encourage vehicle owners to replace their pre-Euro and Euro I diesel commercial vehicles.

Dr Poon said there were existing plans between the Transport Department and the bus companies to replace the older bus fleet.

She said replacing the fleet earlier might cost the bus companies more money. Whether public funds should be used and how, if at all, to restructure fares would also have to be considered.

According to Dr Poon, the bus companies were already deploying environmentally friendly buses in busy districts.

She said about 80 per cent of franchised buses in Causeway Bay and Admiralty were already Euro II models or higher.

Air Pollution Affects Health In Asian Cities

BERNAMA, November 13, 2008 15:13 PM

BANGKOK, Nov 13 (Bernama) — A first-of-its-kind rigorous multi-city study on the effects of air pollution on health in Bangkok, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Wuhan has found significant mortality effects of acute exposure to urban air pollution.

Dr Frank Speizer of the Harvard Medical School and chairman of the Health Effects Institute’s (HEI) International Oversight Committee, said the study brought fresh local evidence that the substantially higher levels of air pollution in Asia were also associated with significant health effects.

“While a strong scientific literature exists in the developed world, documenting the adverse relationship between air pollution and health, differences between developed and developing world populations have sometimes limited the use of western science in developing countries,” he said at the Better Air Quality(BAQ) workshop here.

Over 900 participants are attending the BAQ, making it the largest gathering on air pollution and climate change in Asia.

The study on, “Public Health and Air Pollution in Asia (PAPA): A multicity study of Short-term Effects of Air Pollution on Mortality” was funded by HEI as a major project for Clean Air Initiative-Asia (CAI-Asia). It is the first integrated assessment across multiple Asian cities using modern analytic methods that allow direct comparison with western results.

The study’s finding of a 0.6 per cent increase in mortality for every 10 microgrammes (µg) of exposure to particulate air pollution is strikingly similar to comparable western results (which range from 0.4 per cent to 0.6 per cent) and provides increased confidence in the new Asian results.

The conference was told that with daily levels of Asian particulate air pollution routinely at levels above 100 micrograms (much higher than the World Health Organisation (WHO) Air Quality Guidelines), and very high population density in many Asian cities, these findings are a major cause for concern about the impact of air pollution on the health of Asian populations.

Sumi Mehta, senior scientist at HEI and co-author of an EHP editorial accompanying the studies, said that those with existing heart and lung diseases, the leading causes of death in Asia, were at increased risk of mortality due to air pollution.

“As Asian populations age, these risks can be expected to increase. In light of this recent science, Asian countries should consider whether their current standards, and current levels of air pollution are adequately protecting the public’s health,” Mehta said.

The study was part of a broader effort by the HEI to bring together the world’s data on the acute effects of air pollution by funding a series of related analyses in North America, Europe, Latin America and Asia.

“We are seeing the early stages of an emerging consistency in carefully coordinated studies conducted across regions that can provide policy makers with confidence that population effects are more similar than different.

“Similarly, pollution reduction measures can be expected to yield beneficial results no matter where they are implemented,” said Bob O’Keefe, Vice-President of HEI.